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Entering February, No. 17 Maryland women’s basketball has pushed through adversity and is inching towards identity

The Terps sit at 15-6 entering a make-or-break month for legitimate postseason hopes.

Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

There is no denying the rollercoaster ride this season has been for No. 17 Maryland women’s basketball.

The Terps sit at 15-6 through 21 games, which is an unfamiliar place for them under head coach Brenda Frese. Maryland has not lost six games in a season since its 2017-18 campaign. This year, it lost its sixth game in its 18th game of the season, the earliest it has lost this many contests since the 2003-04 season when it fell at No. 1 Duke in its 18th game.

It would be naive to ignore the ups and downs. But, it would also be ignorant to simply downplay the circumstances.

In their first major test of the season, the Terps defeated Baylor back on Nov. 21, 79-76. It was an incredibly impressive victory for Maryland, which played with basically a five-player rotation — junior guard/forward Faith Masonius and graduate student guard Katie Benzan were ruled out with illnesses, while junior guard Diamond Miller played sparingly due to a knee injury.

The signature victory elevated the Terps to No. 2 in the AP Poll ahead of a trip to The Bahamas, where they would face then-No. 5 NC State and then-No. 7 Stanford. Maryland, which was still without Masonius, Benzan and Miller, lost each of those games by 18 points. Sophomore forward/guard Angel Reese continued to be a force against All-American competition, but the results were hard to come by with a shorthanded roster.

The shine of Maryland started to rub off after falling on the road to No. 1 South Carolina by only seven points, still without its star guard in Miller.

Maryland would go on to lose three of its first seven Big Ten games. It started with an overtime defeat at Indiana, a game where the Terps lost Masonius, their key bench cog, to an ACL tear for the rest of the season. Maryland followed that with two straight wins over Penn State and Minnesota, respectively, but the going would become tougher from there.

News surfaced before Maryland’s Jan. 16 home game against Michigan that Frese’s father, Bill, passed away at the age of 89 following a long battle with cancer. It was a devastating blow to Frese and the Maryland family, but Frese decided to still coach against the Wolverines, saying she “felt like this is where [Bill] would want me to be.”

On an emotional day, Maryland ended up falling by 20 to Michigan in a performance to forget; the Terps only scored 49 points and shot 31.4% from the field.

“Still searching for our identity, our energy and effort,” said Frese following the loss. “I mean the good thing is, it’s only January. But at some point, we’ve got to be able to get in a rhythm as a team and then be able to come out competing for 40 straight minutes.”

The Terps were able to take the adversity from the Michigan game and build it into something tangible and positive in their next game at Ohio State on Jan. 20. Frese would miss that contest due to her father’s funeral arrangements in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and associate head coach Karen Blair would step in.

While the focus against the Buckeyes was to certainly get the win, there was an underlying emphasis to leave it all on the floor for Frese and her father no matter what. Maryland fell to the Buckeyes, 95-89, a game where former Terp Taylor Mikesell destroyed her old team, but there were efforts to be proud of.

“I thought this team came out and played their hearts out,” said Blair in her postgame presser. “So I think we made Bill and Brenda proud. Now obviously we’re not satisfied with the loss, it’s not what Maryland basketball is about. But I think our energy and effort was right, so we’re happy with that tonight.”

Since the Ohio State defeat, Maryland has ripped off three straight wins, beating Northwestern, Rutgers and Penn State. While those games will not be prophetic of the rest of its season, Maryland has a streak to expand on. In its three-game winning streak, Maryland has posted an average margin of victory of 18.7 points per game.

It is not foreign territory for a program that has owned the Big Ten since it entered the conference, but it is meaningful considering the way this season has played out thus far.

Tracing back to the point of “identity,” it is at least one step closer.

“I mean, I think we’re trying to get there,” said Frese after her team’s most recent triumph. “Again, I mean, I would say Diamond’s through her nonconference schedule and kind of finding her stride. I think when you see a strong positive assist-to-turnover ratio for us, that’s a big identity to where this team is at on the offensive end. So that has to continue to be who we are.”

Miller — an All-Big Ten First Team selection from a year ago and perhaps Maryland’s most complete player on both sides of the floor — is going through a season that epitomizes the hardship that Maryland has experienced.

The Somerset, New Jersey, native missed the first four games of the season due to a knee injury, only to return for 15 minutes of action before re-aggravating the injury. Miller missed the next six games, including three of Maryland’s losses — before returning against Coppin State on Dec. 21 for the “nonconference” part of her schedule.

Since officially rejoining junior guard Ashley Owusu in the backcourt, Miller has averaged 13.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game while shooting 47.9% from the field. If she is only now just hitting her stride and can become the 17.3 points per game scorer she was last year, it is a scary sight for Maryland’s opponents.

When discussing assist-to-turnover ratio, Maryland led the country with a 1.69 clip last season. This season, Maryland has a 1.3 ratio; it has a 1.4 mark during the win streak. If the Terps are winning games, it is likely due to this stat that Frese and her team prides themselves on.

There are still some kinks to be worked out, though, in the final month before the postseason.

“And then the rebounding part we’ve got to continue to be able to have,” Frese added.

Maryland’s rebounding issues have been a bit concerning. Its overall rebounding margin is +4.6, which is sixth in the Big Ten. But in conference games, Maryland only has a +1.0 margin, which is eighth in the league and the lowest positive rate of its Big Ten foes. It has been outrebounded in exactly half of its Big Ten games and in each of its four ranked non-conference matchups. Of course, this is subject to change, but Maryland needs to rebound with the elite if it wants to be an elite club itself.

On Feb. 1, Maryland has become overlooked nationally. In ESPN’s Charlie Creme’s latest Bracketology, he has Maryland as a six-seed with a potential nightmare second-round matchup against Connecticut. The Terps were also left out of the top-16 in the selection committee’s initial reveal on Jan. 27.

There is still so much to play out, but it is not often Maryland is in such a spot.

“We’re moving towards February, that’s kind of where I expected us to be rounded into form, just given all the adversity and getting Diamond back into the fold and her conditioning,” Frese finished. “So I think we’re moving that needle a little bit closer with some of the things that when we need it to be.”

Whichever destiny Maryland chooses is in its own hands. Trailing the Big Ten by two games, the Terps may not win the conference regular-season title for only the second time since joining it. But the narrative, and how far Maryland goes in March, can be changed with a concrete identity.